With Thanksgiving just days away, it seemed most appropriate to contemplate the all-American phrase, “Talking Turkey.” Few people know the exact meaning of this phrase. Historians have turned to old publications to place it in its proper context and come up with at least three different usages. What is certain, however, is that “Talking Turkey” is a New England concept.
According to some, the most likely origin stems from early contacts between the Native People and European settlers. And language itself is at the root of this play on words. One theory along these lines highlights the centerpiece of communication between the two cultures, namely, sustenance. As they learned each other’s language in the course trading goods and knowledge, the settlers learned Native words and the Natives learned French and English. Words for things (tree, rock, water, sky, bird, corn, turkey) were learned long before proper sentence structure.
And so the story goes that when settlers sought hunting guidance from their neighbors, the Native people would inquire, “You come talk turkey?” In this context, the meaning is closer to our modern dictionary definition: to discuss something frankly and straightforwardly.
But some dispute this assessment, indeed calling it a mere tale or legend. The dispute arises in the early 1800’s, when various newsprint publications recount the story of a settler and Indian’s conversation when they returned from a hunting expedition.
The spoils consisted in turkeys and crows, maybe even a buzzard depending on the writer. It is said that the European man used convoluted language to trick the Indian into taking the least desirable crows so that he could keep the bigger birds for his own family. The astute Native man promptly observed, “You talking crow for Indian; talking turkey for white man.”
There are a number of versions to this story, but it may be from this context that we commonly agree that “Talking turkey” is the same as “Gobbledygook.” Which brings us back to that turkey as another accepted definition of “Talking turkey” is right in line with our favorite Thanksgiving bird. To talk turkey, according to this definition, is to speak in a silly and grandiose manner reminiscent of the male turkey’s exaggerated gobble and strut during mating season. This makes perfect sense to us.
On this note, we now quit this article cold turkey… and this is a topic for a future Fricassée of Words.
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